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Starship Avalon from "Passengers"
The starship Avalon approaches Arcturus in a scene from “Passengers.” (Sony Pictures via YouTube)

The science is under the hood in “Passengers,” a love story set on a giant starship – and screenwriter Jon Spaihts is the guy who put it there.

Chances are most movie fans are going to the movie to see Hollywood stars Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games,” etc.) and Chris Pratt (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” etc.) rather than to get a tutorial on the physics of the Coriolis effect on a rotating spacecraft. But just in case there are some space geeks in the audience, Spaihts made sure the math works out.

The one-time physics student and science writer has already made a name for himself as “Hollywood’s go-to science fiction screenwriter,” thanks to his work on “Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange” and the upcoming reboot of “The Mummy.”

For “Passengers,” Spaihts created a setting that is both expansive and claustrophobic. All of the action takes place on a starship traveling across light-years of emptiness to a colony world.

But what a starship! “The ship is a character unto itself,” the film’s director, Morten Tyldum, told GeekWire.

Jon Spaihts
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts on the set of “Passengers.” (Johanna Watts Photo via IMDB – CC BY 4.0)

In advance of this week’s opening, we chatted with Spaihts about the starship Avalon and the other scientific angles in “Passengers.” He began by explaining that the idea behind the movie came out of a discussion he had with producers about potential film scripts.

Jon Spaihts: “They were enamored by the image of a man stranded alone in space, so I began to devise a story that somehow began with that much. My thoughts went to the combination of being on a long flight from Earth to another world, through the vast, isolating interstellar distance. These people will either need to live and breed for generations aboard those ships, or sleep the whole way.

“I went with the notion of sleeper ships, and the possibility of someone waking early and having no way back to sleep. Once I had that idea, and it really sank its claws into my imagination, it gave rise almost inevitably to the chain of events that became the plot of the film.

“First he tries to go back to sleep. Then he tries to call for help. Failing all of that, he tries to make a life alone, but begins to go mad in isolation. … The places where it led him seemed inevitable, and it became a love story. A love story haunted by tough philosophical questions and ethical quandaries. That fascinated me.”

GeekWire: How much did you have to delve into the physics of all this? I’m sure there will be space geeks who will be looking at every angle of this for scientific missteps.

Jon Spaihts: “I did do specific research into technical aspects of this starship and where it might be going, what it might see along the way. There are reasons why the movie doesn’t offer a date when these events are unfolding, or specifically name the star that they’re heading to. That’s because I wanted a little poetic license, and moreover, to dodge fussy calculations of how long these movements would take. Ultimately, you want the focus to be on the characters’ story.

“That said, throughout the production, I was a kind of guardian angel of rigorous science. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I failed. You win some arguments, you lose some arguments, but on the whole, I think we did reasonably well.”

Q: There was one reference to a star that the spaceship was making a slingshot maneuver around – Arcturus, I think? Filmgoers might be thinking to themselves, ‘Now, how far away is that?’

A: “It’s about the right distance away. [36.7 light-years from Earth.] I think the dodgiest thing about the slingshot maneuver is, I don’t know how much velocity you can steal from a body you’re passing that does not have substantial proper motion with respect to a transit perpendicular to your direction of travel.

“If it’s pretty stationary with respect to you, I don’t think you can steal a lot of velocity from it, especially if you’re traveling 0.5 c before you get there. So it’s more of a showy move. It might be a way of changing your trajectory.”

Q: Anything you want to say about the propulsion system you use to get to half of the speed of light?

A: “The fusion reactors are at the heart of the ship, and there’s an ion drive at the tail. It’s obviously a constant-thrust ship, because the engine’s always on. That means that the spiraling blades of the ship need to be conical sections to compensate for the thrust of the jet, and make down feel like ‘down’ inside the spaceship.

“The ship has to rotate about once every 80 seconds to produce 1 G, and because there’s no propellant tank on board, you have to be harvesting hydrogen from the near-vacuum of space with that front shield and funneling it back into the ship in order to keep the fusion reactor running and supply propellant to the ion drive.”

Q: Wow, I did not catch that fuel-harvesting function …

A: “Yeah, that magnetic screen at the front of the ship is actually spreading very wide wings in the space ahead of them and funneling trace gases into the ship.”

Q: Anything else that space geeks should watch for in the movie?

A: “On the whole, we’re in pretty good shape. We’re definitely following a funny convention that was initiated by ‘Gravity’ and perpetuated by ‘The Martian,’ where spacewalkers have extra-long tethers. The nature of our tether system makes that semi-believable, but it’s still a very long tether.

“We’re approximately right in terms of the physics of a rotating spaceship. There are some niceties of Coriolus force and the transition from 1 G to zero G that maybe we’re playing a little fast and loose with on the screen, but some of that is just about the possibilities of production.”

[The film’s director, Morten Tyldum, told GeekWire that the biggest special-effects scene, involving a swimming pool that suddenly goes into zero-G, required months of research into how a body of water would respond to changes in the Coriolus force. It also required lots of exhausting work by Jennifer Lawrence, who was pinned down in a pool to film the CGI-enhanced scene. “That is a unique scene,” Tyldum said. “It’s fun to do something that’s never been done before.”]

Q: Any influences from other works of science fiction?

A: “Well, ‘2001’ and Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ are undoubted influences. There’s so much fiction that it’s hard to break it all down.”

Q: You must be having a ball creating these mythos movies, like “Prometheus” and “Doctor Strange.” What gives you the most joy, and what’s the biggest challenge about creating these stories?

A: “The joy is getting to participate in the fictional canon. That’s been inspirational for me for years. I’ve been a legitimate and earnest fan of those fictional worlds, and for me to get to play in that sandbox, and play with those characters – that’s incredible. I have nothing to do with the new ‘Alien’ movie that’s coming out, but a character I invented is in it, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Q: And the biggest challenge? The challenge is probably the flip side, that you have to be respectful of the canon.

A: “In both of those cases, actually, this is true. The canon is gigantic. Doctor Strange is chronicled across hundreds of comic books, and guest appearances in hundreds of other comic books. It goes back decades. It’s difficult to read it all, almost impossible.

“And the ‘Alien’ world comprises, even before ‘Prometheus,’ four different movies, comic book series, novelizations, computer games. There are places online where people have assembled Wikis that attempt to reconcile every single instance of an Alien and explain how they all fit together.

“It’s come to a point where, as a matter of routine, the hard-core fans know the ins and outs of the canon better than any of the storytellers who are writing in those spaces, or the filmmakers who are making movies in those spaces. They actually become your first stop for research.

“When I needed to figure out some of the more obscure questions in the world of ‘Alien,’ I went to the fan bases online to look at how they were putting the big picture together. The big thrill for me, of course, was to participate in that world as a creator.”

Q: Are there any of these worlds that you would like to inhabit?

A: “I’ll skip the ‘Prometheus’ world, thank you very much. That’s not the place I need to live. I like the bright, colonial, optimistic world of ‘Passengers.’ I would be excited to write more stories in that fictional universe.”

Q: Can you talk about that? I guess you have to see how the first movie goes.

A: “I can promise you there will be talk about that.”

For a dissenting view on the scientific grounding for “Passengers,” check out this “Science vs. Cinema” video review by Andy Howell, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But be prepared for a harsh critique: Howell gives the movie a “D” grade for scientific plausibility.

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